Remember how this started? With new mandates and a higher bar. With Georgia hiring a chip off the old Nick. Kirby Smart worked for years behind college football’s iron curtain and stormed Athens like Herman Boone in “Remember The Titans” stormed T.C. Williams High in Alexandria.
“We’re gonna change the way we run. We’re gonna change the way we eat. We’re gonna change the way we block. We’re gonna change the way we tackle. We’re gonna change the way we play in Jacksonville!”
Georgia closes the regular season against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Change has been slow.
Coaches aren’t graded on 10 games, other than on message boards and Twitter. If Smart’s way of coaching, recruiting, building, thinking and messaging is a 180-degree turn from Mark Richt’s, this is going to take time. But it’s fair to suggest that going into the Tech game with a 7-4 record is not what most expected.
When there’s such a frenzy about somebody’s hire that 93,000 people show up for a spring game and the Sanford Stadium video board flashes messages like, “Experience The Rebirth Of An Entire Nation,” and “Join the movement,” nobody’s thinking: 4-4 in the SEC.
The Bulldogs have beaten two ranked teams, North Carolina, Auburn. They have lost to three, Ole Miss (by 31 points), Tennessee, Florida. They lost to Vanderbilt. They came dangerously close to losing to an FCS opponent, Nicholls State. This came after the abbreviated high of opening the season with a win over the Tar Heels in the Georgia Dome.
There have been games when Georgia couldn’t run the ball, despite having an expected Heisman Trophy candidate (Nick Chubb) and a talented backup (Sony Michel). There have been too many games when the offensive line looked overmatched (even against Nicholls State). The most significant progress has come on defense: The Dogs went from getting run over for 510 yards and 45 points in Oxford to yielding just 164 yards and a first-quarter touchdown to Auburn.
What does this all mean for future? Even Smart can’t be certain. Asked where the program sits on this makeover timeline, he said, “I don’t know that. A lot of that depends on recruiting. A lot of it depends on our younger players. A lot of the younger players have gotten better because they’ve played.”
Smart’s objective was to “get the most of this team we possibly can.” A coach’s perspective on that obviously is going to differ from fans’, who view things only through the prism of wins and losses.
“The critics that are there, the fans, the people … there will be always be that,” he said. “It’s part of our profession. I certainly respect that because they have a right to do that. But ultimately for us, we’re charged to do the best job we can each week to develop these young men, make them into better football players and show improvement on our team throughout the year. That’s what we judge ourselves on.”
Have there been times this season when he felt, as a first-time head coach, that he was on a treadmill?
“Let me tell you something: When you work where I worked (at Alabama) for nine years, you’re on a treadmill every day,” Smart said. “There’s not a coach in the country who’s not working from 7 in the morning to probably 11 at night, Monday through Thursday. If that’s not a treadmill, I don’t know what is. So it’s not like I’m swimming.”
How this last game goes will resonate with fans more than whether Georgia wins or loses its bowl game. Ray Goff lost his first two games against Tech, and his coaching career never recovered. Jim Donnan lost his last three and was fired. Mark Richt went 13-2.
But Smart wasn’t hired to beat Tech. He was hired to win championships, SEC and beyond that. For that to happen at Georgia, the strength and depth of the offensive line must get better, and quarterback Jacob Eason needs to start playing like some semblance of one of the nation’s top recruits. But neither of those are guarantees next season. The Dogs’ strength next season will be in the defensive front.
Georgia is moving in the right direction. But the ripple effect of growing a support staff (adding positions such as “football graphic design coordinator”) and helicoptering on high school fields during recruiting isn’t immediate. I’m not sure limiting media access to players (like Nick Saban) or playing a role in significant changes to Georgia open-records laws impacts how players block or tackle. But it was all part of Smart’s agenda.
But the biggest change may be in Smart’s improvement as a head coach. He has been learning on the fly.
“Obviously you get better at everything you do with experience,” he said. “Whether you kick a field goal or you go for it, all of these game-time situations — those were not in my department. Until you go out and do them, you don’t ever have as good a feel for it.”
So maybe the bar was too high too early. But Smart knows: He wasn’t hired to be 7-4 this week.